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Reading With Shortcake

Pete the Cat and the Tip-Top Tree House (My First I Can Read)Pete the Cat and the Tip-Top Tree House by James Dean

If you notice a lot of five-star reads in the children’s book category, this is only because Shortcake loves reading as many of the selections on Kindle Unlimited as we can and she’s very generous with her ratings. In fact, she questioned me for hours after I gave a book three stars.

I tend to go in and edit the ratings later when she’s not looking.

We both love the Pete the Cat series — and this one may be one of the best we’ve read together, so far. Pete wants to invite all his friends over to hang out in his new treehouse. In order to entice them over, he adds on a wave-pool, a bowling alley, and several other large room items to make his friends happy. The sheer absurdity of Pete adding all these rooms and things to the treehouse just amused me no end.

As Pete would say, “Groovy.”

Never Let a Unicorn Wear a Tutu!Never Let a Unicorn Wear a Tutu! by Diane Alber

Shortcake loves unicorns, and she loves dancing. So, a story that promises both — much less that a unicorn might wear a tutu can only be a good thing.

Luckily, Never Let a Unicorn Wear a Tutu! is just as much fun as the title promises — and there’s even a lesson lurking in there. The illustrations are what really people this one over the top, though. Colorful an fun, they helped elevate this story to one of our new favorites and sent us down the rabbit hole to read as many other books from this series as possible.

The Cat Who Wanted To Be A Princess: A Children's Book About Manners, Empathy, and Kindness (Perfect For Princess And Cat Lovers)The Cat Who Wanted To Be A Princess: A Children’s Book About Manners, Empathy, and Kindness by Sonica Ellis

“Daddy, we have to read this one about a princess kitty cat,” Shortcake exclaimed upon seeing this cover in my Kindle Unlimited suggestions.

So, we did.

It’s a cute story about (wait for it) a cat who wants to be a princess. She asks her grandmother about how she can become one and her grandmother offers various behaviors that might help. This doesn’t end with the cat in question, Sophia, become a princess. But what she does learn is how to be kind and empathetic to your friends and neighbors. Not necessarily a terrible lesson and something I feel like I (and a lot of people in the world today) need to be reminded every once in a while.

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Review: Marvel-Verse: Venom

Marvel-Verse: Venom

I should preface this review by saying I’ve never been the biggest fan of Venom. The character is an interesting idea, but I honestly think he’s been overused and overexposed by Marvel since his creation.

So why, then, would I pick up this collection of stories focusing on Venom?

Call it an impulse check-out from my local library.

After reading this collection of five comics, I find myself wondering just who the target audience is for this collection. Is it young readers to introduce them to the character of Venom (in case you’ve just discovered comic books, I guess)? Or is it older readers to give a quick overview of Venom’s origin? I don’t necessarily think it’s anyone who has only seen the big-screen, live-action version of Venom with Tom Hardy because that storyline doesn’t include Spider-Man as part of Venom’s origin. Continue reading

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Review: The Last Best Story by Maggie Lehrman

The Last Best Story

Defenders of high-school journalism, Rose and Grant were inseparable — until one fateful day a few months before the end of her senior year when Rose walked away from the paper and Grant. Now, it’s the night of prom and Rose is there with someone else while Grant continues to wonder why Rose walked away from the paper and the dream of becoming a journalist. When the school is put under lockdown, it’s up to Grant and Rose to get the real story of what’s going on at the big dance out to the world.

The Last Best Story wants to a hybrid of romantic-comedy, thriller, and ripped from the headlines social commentary. Unfortunately, these elements aren’t as well-blended as they could or should have been and the entire novel comes off feeling like it’s treading water for far longer than it should have.

Part of this is how entirely clueless Grant is about his role and influence over Rose. The obvious simmering attracting between the two occasionally bubbles over in flashback, but it feels a bit like watching Who’s the Boss where it felt like every sweeps period, we’d get something that might push our leads into a romantic relationship, only to see it backed off and the status quo reset by episode’s end. It was frustrating then and it’s frustrating here — especially given that the book is trying hard to give Rose a character arc. The question of whether Rose loves journalism or loves that Grant loves journalism and it’s rubbed off on her is an intriguing one that’s brought up, but never reaches a satisfying conclusion.

Add in an almost Scooby Doo level of “I’d have got away with it if not for these darn kids” level thriller plot and you’ve got a novel that just doesn’t quite add up in the final analysis.

One of the most disappointing novels I’ve read this year.

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Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir has been hailed as a new shining star in the science-fiction universe.

The Martian was a character-driven, page-turner that burned quickly by and left you wanting more. Artemis was largely forgettable (so much so that I struggled to recall if I’d read it only a year or so after it was published).

Now, Weir is back with Project Hail Mary — and the result is somewhere in between. While not quite as compellingly page-turning as The Martian, Project Hail Mary has at least lingered with me after the final pages were turned, unlike a certain sophomore novel by Weir.

Ryland Grace is a middle-school science teacher, who wakes up in a stark white room with no memory of how he got there. Grace’s memory slowly starts to return (in convenient chunks at just the right time for the story’s dramatic purposes) and he recalls that Earth is facing an extinction-level event and that he was one of the three people chosen to be sent into deep space to save himself and our planet. Grace’s two colleagues have perished, leaving him to piece together not only where he’s been, how he got there, but also what he needs to do so hopefully save the planet. And he’s also got to make the first contact with a new alien race.

Grace may not seem like the most likely or likable choice to go on a mission to save humanity. And Weir does his best to make Grace a character we can sympathize with and root for. The problem is that I never quite developed the same investment in Grace that I did in Mark in The Martian. Mark was gifted in certain areas, but never came off as smarmy or overly smug, Grace does. I kept wanting to like Grace but I never found myself rooting for him in the same way as Mark.

Which is all well and good. I don’t expect an author to write the same book over and over again. But what I do hope is the author will find a way to engage me across each of his or her novels. Weir did that with The Martian but failed to do so in his last two books. The dilemma that Grace faces is intriguing enough. It’s just there are long stretches of the book when I feel like Weir is trying too hard to prove the science behind his science-fiction and not necessarily engaging the reader.

Project Hail Mary isn’t quite the triumphant return I’d hoped Weir would have. It’s good, it’s (for the most part) readable. But it never quite got its hooks into me in the way I’d hope it would. This one may drop Weir from my list of automatic reads.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a digital ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Lake Wobegon Virus by Garrison Keillor

The Lake Wobegon Virus

It’s rare for a new book by one of my favorite authors to sneak up on me, but somehow Garrison Keillor managed to publish The Lake Wobegon Virus with little or any fanfare last year.

Maybe it was because fans (well, at least this one) were disappointed by Keillor’s last journey to Lake Wobegon. Or maybe it was that his autobiography warranted a bit more of the marketing push and resources. Either way, it made it feel like reading The Lake Wobegon Virus is like discovering an episode of an old favorite TV show that you’d somehow missed through all the times watching and rewatching that show — comforting and familiar with a reminder of what you love about the property without necessarily stoking or diminishing the flames of your fandom.

A virus is sweeping through the small town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve with people acting strangely and being ruthlessly honest with each other. Some chalk it up to unpasteurized cheese getting out into the population while others think that mysterious billionaire buying up large chunks of real estate might be the culprit.

The thing that took me out of Keillor’s last several visits to Lake Wobegon was a feeling that he’d become too cynical for his own good — we were no longer laughing with the characters but at them. With The Lake Wobegon Virus. Keillor inserts a fictional version of himself into his fictional town and the novel feels like early works. There were moments that brought a smile to my face and a chuckle while reading that were, quite frankly, not present in the last few novels.

Keillor’s fictional doppelganger makes repeated references to avoiding writing his memoirs — which makes me think the real-life Keillor was having fiction reflect reality a bit. I could see Keillor using this novel as an escape from writing his memoirs or maybe as a warm-up to doing the work of examining his own life and putting down those details on the printed page.

The storytelling is very episodic in nature, feeling like Keillor is tying together some of his monologs from the waning days of his hosting The Prairie Home Companion. And while there is the pervading threat of the bad cheese hanging over things, it’s the stories of the lives of the people and the town that kept me going.

In many ways, this one feels like Keillor putting a final bow on his fictional small town — and I’ve got to admit that had me feeling a bit sentimental as the final page flipped by. I came away from the novel feeling a bit like I’d spent the last few moments when one of my favorite writers in the fictional world of his that I loved so much. If this is the end, it’s a nice way to go, reminding me of what I feel in love with Keillor’s writing and the town of Lake Wobegon all those decades ago.

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Big Finish Audio Review: Doctor Who, Time Lord Victorious: The Enemy of My Enemy

Doctor Who: Time Lord Victorious: The Enemy of My EnemyChris Chibnall owes James Goss a thank-you note for giving Doctor Who fans something besides the implications of the Timeless Child to focus on during (yet another) gap year in new installments.

The second installment in the Paul McGann entry of the “Time Lord Victorious” arc features the Daleks (because, of course, we can’t not have the Daleks in there somehow) and builds on the foundation provided by “He Kills Me, He Kills Me Not.” “The Enemy of My Enemy” is a bit more successful and entertaining of a story than the previous installment, though I couldn’t help but feel there was some potential overlooked here. Some of the connections to the larger story come through here — especially the weapon held by the Wrax. There are probably Easter eggs to other installments of this series that I’m either not getting because I haven’t experienced them yet or I wasn’t taking notes as I listened to/read other parts.

McGann is up to his usual standard of excellence here, proving once again that he would have been a great on-screen Doctor if he’d been given the chance. Nicholas Briggs once again gives us an impressive array of Dalek voices and he even manages to make most of them distinctive enough that this listener could tell which Dalek was speaking. I will admit that years of watching classic Who has me expecting Davros to turn up at some point, but I am thinking that’s more and more unlikely.

The story builds to a point and then ends of a cliffhanger. As the middle installment of a trilogy, a lot of what we’re getting here is moving pieces into place for the end game to come. I’m interested enough that I will listen to part three.

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Comic Book Review: Spider-Man: Bloodline by J.J. & Henry Abrams, Sara Pichelli, Dave Stewart

Spider-Man: Bloodline

Well, it appears that J.J. Abrams’ son Henry has inherited his father’s ability to start off a story well but has no idea how to stick the landing.

This five-issue mini-series event is a bit of a disappointment on the writing side. A new villain called Cadaverous kills Mary Jane and a bunch of other superheroes, sending Peter Parker into exile. A decade or so later, Peter is estranged from his fifteen-year-old son Ben and has left Ben in the hands of Aunt May as he travels the globe for the Bugle. But Ben is starting to have strange occurrences in his life, like sticking to walls and the ability to take out bullies with a single punch. Before you know it, Ben has discovered he’s got Spidey powers and Cadaverous is alerted that Spider-Man is back on the scene and can be used to complete whatever the hell plan it is that Cadaverous has dreamed up.

Bloodline feels like an extended mini-series based on the MCU more than the comic-book storylines surrounding Spider-Man — and that’s not a bad thing, per se. If there’s one thing Into the Spider-Verse showed us, it’s there can be multiple variations of Spider-Man without necessarily wrecking things.

But as I started out saying, the big issue here is Henry Abrams’ writing. It’s all over the place, pulling in things like Tony Stark, the Avengers, and other MCU items without necessarily thinking things through. If you’re all about a big reveal that doesn’t require much thought or internal continuity, this is the mini-series for you. However, Spider-Man has always been about something more than just big reveal after big reveal for me — it’s about investing in the character of Peter Parker — or whoever is taking up the Spider-Man mantle. And that’s where this mini-series ultimately fails. Yes, Ben Parker is Peter and MJ’s son, but beyond that, there is little or any character arc in play to give us a reason to care about. And since Peter turns into a distant father, there’s little, if any reason, to invest much in him either.

The story does try to go for a huge emotional twist in the final issue with mixed results. Again, I hadn’t invested enough in the characters to really feel anything more than a shoulder-shrug when said reveal takes place.

And the ending is all over the place. So, maybe J.J. wrote this with his son.

Putting the plot aside, the artwork for this miniseries is superbly done. I grew up reading reprints of the Steve Ditko and John Romita eras, and those will always be my favorites when it comes to Spider-Man. But the art by Sara Pichelli for this mini-series event evokes the best of Ditko and Romita. It’s colorful and easy to distinguish each character over the course of the five issues. There are a few striking panels in here that made me pause to just enjoy them before turning the page and continuing to roll my eyes at the plotline.

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Review: The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

The Wife UpstairsI’ve never read Jane Eyre, so I can’t speak to how faithful to the original Rachel Hawkin’s updated retelling, The Wife Upstairs is or isn’t. What I can speak to is that sense that this novel never quite connected with me.

Set in Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is on the run from her past. Working as a dog-walker for the city’s elite, Jane meets Eddie Rochester. Eddie’s wife disappeared (along with her best friend) under mysterious circumstances and is presumed dead.

So, of course, these two begin dating and their relationship moves rather quickly from dating to living together to engaged. Jane doesn’t want a big wedding for fear of publicity bringing unwanted questions from her past life, but her old roommate is more than willing to blackmail her to keep those pursuing her at bay. Jane works to keep one step ahead of her past, teasing readers with what it may or may not be for far longer than I had much patience for.

That really sums up my disappointment with The Wife Upstairs. It teases us for far too long (though we know a bit about what Eddie is up to early on) without giving sufficient answers to the questions raised until I’d long since lost most of my interest in Jane. I suppose if I’d cracked open a copy of Jane Eyre at some point in my life, I’d already know a lot of what is revealed in the final third of the book. But that might have ruined some of the “thrill” of discovering all this for myself.

Another issue with The Wife Upstairs is that it attempts to be a domestic suspense thriller without offering much in the way of thrills or suspense. I found myself more relieved to finally be done with the novel than satisfied with the overall reading experience once I turned the final page.

Overall, a disappointment.

I received a digital ARC of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Audiobook Review:The Effort by Claire Holroyde

The Effort

An updated take on Lucifer’s Hammer, Claire Holroyde’s The Effort speculates that it (still) wouldn’t take much for civilization as we know it to collapse and our world to descend into chaos. In the case of The Effort, it’s a large comet that is on a collision course with our planet. Holroyde bounces between multiple characters in the story, from members of a team, tasked with finding a way to save the planet from destruction to those dealing with civilization as we know it falling into chaos as some of humanity’s more base tendencies toward self-preservation kick in.

Like Lucifer’s Hammer, I found myself slowly starting to root for the cosmic calamity to befall the planet and start getting rid of certain characters, chief among them the head scientist Ben. Ben’s worst tendencies include not allowing members of his team to manifest any physical appearance that time is passing and his lack of consideration for those he doesn’t consider of immediate benefit or impact to the group trying to find a last-second way to save us all from destruction. Continue reading

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Review: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her Eyes

Have you ever got to the end of a book and wondered — what the heck did I just read?!?

If not, then you might want to pick up Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes because it’s got one of the most WTF endings I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, the ending is so WTF, that any conversation about the book is going to naturally have to go into detail about it. You are suitably warned.

When single-mother Louise meets David in a bar, the chemistry between them is electric. But, he’s married, so Louise ends up not pursuing more than a semi-drunk flirtation with him. Things get a bit more awkward when it turns out that David is the new doctor at the counseling clinic where Louise is employed part-time. Despite a conversation in which both of them declare that seeing each other is a bad idea, the chemistry continues to be there.

Things get even more complicated with Louise runs into Adele, David’s wife. The two strike up a friendship, though Louise conveniently omits that she flirted with Adele’s husband and that she and David have started an affair (apparently behind Adele’s back, though the first-person chapters from Adele’s point of view make it clear that she not only knows about this, she’s also manipulating both sides for….well, more on that later).

If you’re thinking we’ve even reached the depths of the WTF, we aren’t even in the same zip code yet.

Through flashbacks, we find out that Adele has an interesting past — her parents died in a fire, she’s wealthy but she’s signed over all her money to David, and she spent time getting mental help while David was in college. It’s at the institution that she meets Rob, who she gets close to during her time. They get so close that Adele invites him to come to stay with her should Rob’s family kick him out if and when he backslides from his drug habit.

If you’re wondering who Rob is and why Behind Her Eyes keeps flashing back to him and turns over a good bit of the novel’s real estate to him, the answer becomes clear in the final pages. And it’s once the answer becomes clear that the question of whether or not you love the novel or want to throw it against the wall in frustration will be answered. Continue reading

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